Fearful consumers can hinder the development of green technologies

Firms developing products and services that tackle grand societal challenges have better chances of success when they address people’s fears, habits and routines.

By Daniel Arenas

There is a pressing need to develop products and services that tackle grand societal challenges. In this environmental quest, green technologies often require changing social norms and people’s expectations. This is not an easy task: social innovation is a two-way street. Without consumers, innovation would never make it to the market.

In our article published in Business & Society, we demonstrate how the involvement of future consumers in these green technologies is fundamental for market success. Firms developing technologies that target social challenges have greater chances of success when they engage and interact with future users throughout the entire innovation process.

We compared four case studies involving a variety of new environmental products and services, including electric vehicles, shared bicycle systems, charging networks and smart housing technology.

Green technologies often require changing social norms and people’s expectations

Our findings show that fearful consumers can hinder social innovation and that one of the keys to increasing a product’s chances of success in the market is to tap into people’s expectations, fears, habits and routines. Why? Because direct and indirect interactions with consumers during the development phase create physical experiences and positive emotions that counteract potential fears.

Tapping into people’s fears

To challenge prevailing fears among potential users concerning the new technology (e.g. doubts about its functionality and fears of sacrifice), the firms in our study created a variety of experiences and on-site demonstrations to familiarise users with the new technology.

Prior to launching the product on the market, one of the companies in our study – a French shared bicycle system provider – installed demonstration points to help users reduce their doubts and fears. Before these points were installed, users felt that it was “stressful and dangerous” to cycle in the city , as the “streets were too narrow for people to cycle safely,” and they had “not even thought of buying a bicycle, as there was no place to park it.”

One of the keys to increasing a product’s chances of success in the market is to tap into people’s expectations

Besides installing demonstration points, the company also launched demonstration campaigns in the commercialisation phase, explaining to future users how the bike-sharing system worked and what measures were taken to increase road safety. These campaigns often associated bicycling with freedom and health issues to counteract the negative image of risks and danger.

The experience worked – it changed the perception of bicycle riding among future users.

Similarly, an electricity provider aiming to introduce a new e-mobility charging network in Austria claimed that users had serious concerns about the functioning of electric vehicles, particularly with regard to the limited driving range. 

Electric car
Some users fear that electric vehicles are only appropriate for urban areas (Photo: Nrqemi/iStock)

A German automobile manufacturer aiming to bring electric vehicles to the market faced the same challenge. From the very beginning of the innovation process, the company launched educational activities to cancel out users’ fears and provide empirical evidence about the technology. 

For example, some users feared that electric vehicles were only appropriate for urban areas. By providing scientific evidence that showed that users in the countryside can also manage an electric vehicle, the company showed the public new domains of application.

Pilot studies and demonstration sites can lower consumers’ fears

These cases show that pilot studies and demonstration sites can lower consumers’ fears, raise public awareness and convince future users of the benefits of new technologies.

The role of positive emotions

Our interviews with users who participated in test-drives of electric vehicles showed that this hands-on experience had a positive effect on their perception of the technology. Users quickly started to adopt new behaviours such as forward-looking and energy-saving driving. The test-drives also triggered positive emotions such as joy, interest and excitement, or at least reassurance and comfort. 

Creating experiences that drive positive emotions can change the initial negative perception that people may have about a new technology

The role of positive emotions was even more visible in several short films that the automobile manufacturer in our study displayed on a webpage. In the commercialisation phase, the firm invited bloggers, social media critics and other interested people in several major European cities to drive an electric car for free, on the condition that they allowed the company to film their first experiences with e-mobility.

The films were posted online and showed that many drivers experienced joy and happiness, excitement, inspiration and surprise about the electric car’s quietness, comfort and acceleration capacity.

Creating experiences that drive positive emotions can change the initial negative perception that people may have about a new technology. In one user’s words: “Oh my god, this is amazing... Wow! It is super smooth and quiet, I love it. I did not even realise that I turned it on. It’s like we’re gliding. This is the future. Imagine how quiet London would be with electric cars only. Usually, I’m always stressed by the noise when driving my combustion-engine car.”

In sum, throughout the innovation process, especially in the development and commercialisation phase, all the companies in our study engaged with future users and created real-life experiences with the new technology among potential users. These experiences were successful in dismantling preconceived beliefs, lowering initial fears, and providing users with the skills and experience necessary for market acceptance.

This article is based on research published in Business & Society.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.